Today’s business leaders are under constant pressure to prepare their companies for a competitive landscape that’s being continuously reshaped by digital transformation. But while they face the challenge of navigating completely new terrain, there are lessons they can learn from military leadership.
“An important mantra in the United States Marine Corps is, ‘Not knowing is not good,’” said Dr. Donald Lombardi, a distinguished industry professor at the School of Business. “It’s the responsibility of a leader to learn as much as possible in a situation, particularly one which is in a state of flux. From basic training, which is specifically designed to barrage new recruits with shifting circumstances, to the actual operations of any military unit, the only constant is change.”
Dr. Lombardi is the faculty liaison for the Stevens Veterans Office whose experience in the U.S. Marine Corps still informs his work in the healthcare management space to this day.
Professor Michael Parfett, a former reservist in the U.S. Army, has decades of experience in the information technology business. Implementing emerging technologies comes with its own set of challenges, but taking on a military mindset can help the process.
“Veterans are risk takers where appropriate,” he said. “Once a decision is made, they move forward with implementation until the job is complete.”
This commitment to the mission is necessary to get projects completed but not always easy to achieve in high-pressure circumstances. No matter the setting, the key is confident, adaptable leaders who can steer the ship through murky waters.
“The whole name of the game in the military is not only making decisions under pressure, but making the right decision given the circumstances, resources and personnel at hand,” said Dr. Lombardi. “Anticipating problems and taking decisive action in a timely manner are mainstays of any military officer’s orientation to leadership.”
Leaders can be more confident in their decisions if they are supported by strong teams. Without a sense of cohesion, military brigades — and company departments — would be much more vulnerable to threats. But building unity isn’t as simple as putting on a uniform.
“The military is highly diverse,” said Parfett. “You have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see where they are coming from.”
Dr. Lombardi echoes this sentiment: “I can honestly say that the U.S. Marine Corps was the most diverse organization that I was ever a part of. The ability to understand and blend varying perspectives into a common plan that fosters cooperation prepares one to be able to find mutual benefit among any group in the business or academic world.”
Both Parfett and Dr. Lombardi believe clear and effective communication is an integral tool for military leadership to build trust and buy-in among units. That often gets lost in business, where messaging can be a moving target.
“One trait that is always stressed in the training of military officers is transparency,” said Dr. Lombardi. “The premium put on ‘spin’ in business means communication is all too often used for individual gain as opposed to common purpose.”
It’s also crucial to keep teams equipped to handle the evolving challenges they face. Upskilling is already an important part of military training, and one that more businesses would be wise to adopt.
“As a matter of life or death, you are constantly retraining for the future in the military,” said Parfett. “But, in business, it could be life or death for your company.”